The Sensory Landscape of Cities

What do things look like? What colours do you see? How far can you see? What do you smell? What sounds do you hear? What do you feel? What do you touch? The city is an assault on the senses. Cities are sensory, emotional experiences, for good and for bad. But we are not accustomed to articulating things in this way: the smelling, hearing, seeing, touching and even tasting of the city are left to travel literature and brochures. It taxes our vocabulary as we are used to describing the city in an 'objective' lexicon deprived of sensory descriptives. We thus experience the city at a low level of awareness. We do not recognize, let alone describe, its smellscape, soundscape, visual spectacle, tactile texture or taste sufficiently. Our impoverished articulation is made all the worse because the city can overwhelm our senses - honking, flashing, whirring, whizzing, precipitous, huge, confusing. Too often, urban stimuli induce a closing rather than opening out of our senses. Depleted, drained and defensive, our field of experience is diminished.

We live in an impoverished perceptual mindscape, operating with a shallow register of experience and so guiding our lives through narrow reality tunnels. The primary overwhelming paradox for those who care for cities is this: our capacity to perceive is shrinking at precisely the moment when it needs to increase. And this will cause a crisis of growing proportions as the individual and institutional capacity to cope with and address predicaments and possibilities will decline. Our perceptive capacities are shrinking because we do not sufficiently recognize or practise most of the senses. By diminishing our sensory landscape, we approach the world and its opportunities within a narrow perspective. By being narrow we do not grasp the full range of urban resources or problems at hand, their potential or threat, let alone their subtleties. We do not connect the sensory to the physical and work out how each can support the other.

Our world is shrinking as its interconnections become far more tightly bound, as mass movement and mobility continue unabated, as economies intermesh globally, and as electronics flattens the distance between places. This is happening at speed and simultaneously, rapidly bringing together cultures, people and ideas. To handle this complexity we need deep and discriminating minds that grasp the delicate diversities and understandings required to operate in worlds of difference and distinctiveness.

Constricted, we understand and interpret the city through the technical rather than the sensory, yet it is the sensory from which we build feeling and emotion and through which our personal psychological landscapes are built. These in turn determine how well or badly a place works - even economically, let alone socially or culturally - and how it feels to its inhabitants and to visitors. Technical disciplines like engineering, physical planning, architecture, surveying and property development are important, but they are a smaller part of the urban story than their practitioners would wish to think.

The senses contribute to a rudimentary form of knowledge upon which our worlds are built. The sensory landscapes we focus on are the five senses first classified by Aristotle: hearing, smell, sight, touch and taste. Yet it is now recognized that this list is not exhaustive. For example, perceptions of pain1 and of balance2 have been identified as distinct from these five. Depending on classification, somewhere between 9 and 21 human senses have so far been identified, more (up to 53) if you include those recognized by meta-physicians.3

Take electroperception. The city is a vast, dense sea of electrical energy fields and waves estimated to be 100 million times stronger than 100 years ago. Urban life systems cannot operate without electricity; an electrical shutdown will bring the city to a halt. The accumulative cocktail of magnetic and electrical fields generated by power transmission lines, pylons and masts, mobile phones, computers, television and radio, lighting, wiring and household appliances can seriously interfere with the subtle natural balances of each cell in our body. These massive currents criss-crossing the urban environment are unseen, unfelt, unheard, without taste or smell, yet they operate upon us, albeit at a subconscious level.4

Whatever the semantics, there is clearly a lot more to our sensory landscapes than we acknowledge. And our circumscribed, cramped focus has pervasive implications. It limits perception, thinking, the way we analyse, what we think is important and the ideas we come up with to solve problems or create opportunities. It pares down our mindscape.

A mindscape is the totality of our thinking: the modes, proclivities and gut reactions of thought; the theories we use to interpret and construct reality; how this in turn shapes all the sensory elements and how these are perceived, taken apart and interpreted; how our mind responds to and is moulded by the media and cultural representations; and how it handles, engages with and uses its own historical sediment and traces. This mind sets the preconditions for our perceptual geography.

Just as geography describes the Earth and the impact of human interactions upon it, deriving as it does from the Greek words for 'earth' and 'to write on' or 'describe', so perceptual geography is the process of acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information about the places we inhabit. The aim is to encourage our minds to be wider in analysing opportunities and problems and in finding richer ways of identifying and implementing solutions.

In order to do this, the first step is to perceive expansively in order to work with the full register of experience. The next step is to interpret broadly to appreciate the range of possibilities. Intelligence is the capacity to make these two steps, encompassing as it does vital intellectual abilities: comprehension and understanding, profiting from experience, reasoning, planning, problem-solving, abstract thought, linguistic flexibility and learning. As a corollary, there is an implicit need to rethink our narrow definitions of intelligence as merely a numeric, verbal and logical capacity.

It is appropriate to point to Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences here.5 Gardner proposes that people have several kinds of 'intelligence' and suggests that, in teaching, we have for too long given greater credibility to the thinking intelligences concerned with words and writing or with numbers, logic and abstractions. Sensory intelligences, on the other hand, have been given secondary status. Sensory intelligences here include the visual-spatial, concerned with vision and spatial judgement, the body-kinaesthetic, concerned with muscular coordination and doing, and the auditory-musical, concerned with hearing and listening. Although we admire painters, singers and dancers, their insights are rarely incorporated into how the economic or social worlds might operate. Further, two intelligence types concern communication: the interpersonal, the capacity to interact and exchange ideas and information with others, and the intrapersonal, the communication a person has with themselves, the ability to reflect. Finally, there is naturalist intelligence, the ability to understand the various functions of and mechanisms behind life, an intelligence often lacking for those who live in cities and who are often completely divorced from nature. But, given the fragility of our ecosystems and finiteness of our resources, understanding the relation between, say, a hamburger and a cow is ever more important.

The sense-making process applies forms of intelligence to perceptions and a 'post-sensory cognitive awareness' process begins. This is the mind operating aware of perceptions, thought and objects and it includes all aspects of perceiving, thinking, feeling and remembering. This interpretative process is culture in the making as it involves beliefs, desires, intentions, past knowledge, experience and valuing what is significant.

The sensory realm of cities generates strong feelings, and emotions spawned by urban life are not neutral or value free. They are subjective, yet similar emotions are often shared, especially between individuals within a cohesive group. Conversely, while the fact that we have emotions is universal, our culture determines how our emotions unfold and how we interpret their significance, as do expectations, norms and the conditioned behaviour of the group. They affect the mechanics of body function as well as behaviour. Emotions are the domain where body mechanisms and thought mesh, where the physical 'self', instinctive drives and our perceptions, values and opinions collide. This can cause tension and affects how we behave towards others.

It is clear that the urban experience should very much be understood as a psychological experience. And, as discussed earlier, the physical and social environment deeply affects the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Beauty and ugliness impact on our behaviour and mental state; building configurations can engender feelings of safety or fear. People have thresholds of tolerance as to what they can psychologically bear in terms of stimuli.

But we approach the urban sensescape with chronic myopia and thus an ill-equipped toolkit. Paradoxically, this aggravates the problems, dysfunction and malaise it is trying to solve. This feeling of not sensing can dull and foster a feeling of being out of control, taking people almost to breaking point. What will be the effect on the new generation, who have never experienced anything different and are unaware of sensory richness?

This focus on the senses is not about making people feel paranoid, frightened, hyperaware or over self-conscious. Instead it aims to get us to concentrate on two important things. First, how we feel as individuals and city-dwellers in negotiating urban life in order to live well, generate wealth, coexist without harming fellow citizens and collaborate. Second, to care for the environment, without which life as we know it is not possible. The implications of this expanded awareness are far-reaching. It demands, unavoidably in the end, that, as a collective body of people, we change our behaviour and lifestyles. But better to change through our own conscious choice rather than have the change imposed on us through circumstances out of our control.

Seeing the city as a field of senses could be an invigorating experience. Playing with the senses can trigger action; it might generate the pressure for ecological transport more quickly, for planting more greenery or for balancing places for stimulation and reflection in the city. It would force us to ask questions such as: How can the smell, sound, visual, touch and taste landscapes help cities? Bold inroads into sensory fields have already been undertaken by some cities: light6 and colour7 have been tackled where issues such as colour planning strategies, future colour, and space or colour and its effects on the mind and well-being are considered. Imagine, if you will, the differences in effects of a city that is essentially white (Casablanca or Tel Aviv), pink (Marrakech), blue (Jodphur or Oman's new Blue City project), red (Bologna) or yellow (Izamal in Yucatan). Or imagine a city that is black - the darkness would provoke seasonal affective disorder, well-known in Scandinavia where winter light is scarce. Until the 1960s, London was in fact a black city. Emissions of smoke from coal and industry blackened stone and brick, shading buildings with a uniform, light-absorbing black. Decades of scraping off the surface dirt reveal colour and detail hidden for years. The nickname of some cities involves colour: Berlin or Milan are both known as 'the grey city'.

Clearly planners and developers deal with sensory elements, but often with insufficient thought, subtlety or care. Even worse, sensory awareness is strongly manipulated in the world of shopping malls and destination marketing without an ethical aim. The purpose is for people to spend more so 'nice' smells and 'good' sounds direct and guide people. At the very least we should know what is happening - that, for instance, the smell of bread is pumped out in supermarkets, as is the smell of turkey at Christmas.

Sensory resources and awareness are seen as offbeat, without much credibility. There is no acknowledged professional discipline focused on the whole picture and linking these resources to the physical. Planners and architects might argue they take these issues into consideration, but they focus more readily on look, colour and light. Equally, there is a neglect of the senses in education. You rarely discover a teacher discussing someone's sense of sight, sound, taste or smell. As a consequence, there is no related career advice or training or job route. Within schools, the arts curriculum is the main area where appreciation of the senses is specifically highlighted - of those, that is, apart from smell and taste - yet the arts continually remain in the firing line, having to argue that investing in them is worthwhile. The kinds of imagination and thinking the arts' focus on senses and sense-making engenders rarely, if ever, carry into city-making. Increasingly, artists are members of planning teams, but still more as an exception than the rule. Usually, too, they are restricted to the visual, as in public art projects, where all too often they are brought in as decorative embellishment and as an afterthought rather than as part of the initial conceptualization of possibilities. Artists play large roles in urban events, but little as healers of the soundscape or developers of colour strategies.

People within and between cultures perceive and value the senses in different ways. Places will be loved or hated depending on sensory cues. The sensory environment for an older person might be noisy or unsafe while too quiet or safe for someone young. The same differences can apply to people from different class and income backgrounds. A smell is seen as sweet and comforting in one cultural context and as fear-inducing in the next. A smell can be nice if you associate it with someone you like, horrible if exuded from someone you dislike. The sound of nothingness may feel relaxing to a Finn and like a heavy rumble to someone from Taipei. And for each of the landscapes of sense, there are cultural codes of conduct. The Chinese and Italian speak far more freely about smell in comparison to the English. Italians are encouraged to touch merchandise, especially fruit or vegetables, whereas it is discour aged elsewhere. In Northern Europe people tend to touch each other less. Southern Europeans shake hands and hold shoulders more.

Our experiences of stimuli are also mediated by culture. For example, we consider the sounds of animals as neutral and similar across cultures, but this is not reflected in onomatopoeia. English dogs woof woof or bow wow, German ones wau wau. Around the world, dogs bau bau in Italy, ham ham in Albania, haw haw in Arabia and wang wang in China.8 And woof woof is definitely not a dog in Japanese. Roosters cock-a-doodle-do, kikeriki or chichirichi depending on where you are.9 Importantly, though, in spite of differences about interpretation, there are broad agreements on the significance of the senses across time and culture. Drawing back to this essential sensory realm, the aim is to trigger a direct unmediated response to the urban environment (while noting that nothing is completely unmediated).

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